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Pakistan postpones hearing for teenage Christian girl jailed for alleged blasphemy

A Christian Pakistani girl, covered in a white cloth, is ushered into a police vehicle
A Christian Pakistani girl, covered in a white cloth, is ushered into a police vehicle in Islamabad to go for a medical examination after being charged with blasphemy, Aug. 27, 2012. CBS

(CBS News) ISLAMABAD - A Pakistani judge postponed Tuesday a bail hearing for a Christian girl jailed on charges that she desecrated the Muslim holy book after an official medical review concluded that she is only 14-years-old and likely suffers from some mental disability that makes her less well developed than others of her age, the girl's lawyer tells CBS News.

Tahir Naveed Chaudhary, a Christian politician and the lawyer representing the girl's family, tells CBS News the bail hearing was postponed until Thursday so the court could fully consider the new evidence.

"The medical evidence has concluded that her mental age is below her chronological age, and the doctors also believe she is 14 years of age," said Chaudhary. "Our contention is, she is a child and as a minor cannot be prosecuted on the grounds that have been presented in the blasphemy case," added Chaudhary, saying he will seek to have the case dismissed.

Her parents have claimed through a local priest that she suffers from Down's syndrome, though that claim has not been confirmed by medical examinations thus far.

The girl's status as a minor will see the case shifted to Pakistan's juvenile court system, but her fate remains unclear, and the case continues to highlight to the world the intimidation minority Christians can suffer as Muslim extremists influence the country's courts and law enforcement.

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The divide between Pakistan's Muslims and the Christian minority - who represent only about 2 percent of the population - can now be seen clearly in the girl's neighborhood in suburban Islamabad.

A Muslim neighbor of an arrested Christian girl shows the lock on her house
Mukhtar Khan, a Muslim neighbor of an arrested Christian girl, shows the lock on her abandoned house and vows her family will never be allowed to return to the neighborhood in Islamabad, Aug. 20, 2012. AP

"Homes with a padlock on their front doors are likely to be homes of Christians," a Pakistani Christian priest who has regularly monitored conditions in the neighborhood - which was home to about 300 Christian families prior to this case - tells CBS News. "A number of people have fled and they are still in hiding. They fear for their lives."

The girl's detention has prompted an outcry from human rights groups, which point to her case as just the latest example of Pakistan's Christians being targeted by hardline Islamic groups which they say wield overwhelming influence over the government.

The case began when one of the teenager's neighbors allegedly spotted her dumping burned pages inscribed with Islamic verses from the Koran on a garbage dump about 100 yards from her home.

Malik Amjad, the landlord who owns the girl's family home, tells CBS News a teenaged Muslim girl from the neighborhood rushed to the local mosque after the accused girl was spotted - by another neighbor - dumping the Islamic text, and alerted people gathered for daily prayers.

"She yelled to her fellow Muslims, 'the Koran is being desecrated. Come and save our religion,'" says Amjad, citing the neighbor. "Suddenly there was a large crowd of protesters and they were all demanding immediate action."

Police were reportedly reluctant at first, but under pressure from the angry crowd which had gathered outside her home, they arrested the young woman on charges of blasphemy - an offense technically punishable by death under Pakistan's law, though no one has ever been executed for the crime.

While Pakistan's government appears keen to resolve the case without an embarrassing trial, likely by way of bail being granted, critics say there has already been a miscarriage of justice, and the chilling effect on Pakistan's Christians is evident.

Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, a senior police officer is required to give clearance before the police can register a case of blasphemy. In the girl's case, however, a junior police officer registered the arrest. A senior police officer in Islamabad told CBS News on condition of anonymity that the decision to register her case was taken largely to diffuse the tension in the neighborhood.

"This was important to protect the victim herself," he told CBS News. "If we would not have registered the case, I am certain an angry mob would have attacked and burned the police station."

Edited by foreign editor Tucker Reals.
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